No place suffered more severe of a psychic blow from the Sept. 11 hijackings than New York City. One chilling dimension of the attacks illustrates how complicated the recovery effort became. Death certificates were issued for 2,746 people in the wake of the tragedy. But four years after 9/11 when the unparalleled effort to identify missing people using DNA technology was officially called off, the remains of more than 1,000 had not been identified. Their families had a piece of paper declaring them a victim. But there was nothing for them to bury. Forensic biologist Robert Shaler of New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner led the campaign to test the boundaries of DNA, which resulted in modern science connecting names to 844 of the victims. Other identifications were made using dental X-rays, fingerprints, photographs, personal effects and tattoos. In a later book about his experience, Shaler described how responding to mass casualty incidents and preparing for catastrophe is a multifaceted challenge that communities in America large and small still struggle to grasp, perhaps due to the rarity of immense destruction here. “Working a mass disaster was something I never asked for or wanted, though I had always expected that working in a forensic laboratory in New York City meant my turn would come,” he wrote. “It was a given; only a matter of time. I assumed it would be an airliner crash or bombing. … I hadn’t conceived of two planes and two buildings. And certainly not the Twin Towers.” Arguably, the state of New York faces greater pressure than anyone else to demonstrate what effective response and recovery looks like and to prove that every dime spent on homeland security will produce measurable results. The state has received hundreds of millions of dollars in anti-terrorism and readiness funds since 2001. New York’s representatives in Washington have rarely missed an opportunity to argue that they deserve more. But public interest watchdogs who want to determine how well the Empire State has managed such enormous investments face two significant hurdles. One is identifying which agencies are actually in charge of the money. A second is figuring out how to overcome national security restrictions placed on key documents that would help answer questions about the spending. We sent open-records requests to multiple offices that appeared to be responsible for homeland security grants, from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services to the New York Office of Homeland Security, and from New York City’s Office of Management and Budget to its Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator. The management and budget office responded with one document, a site inspection done to evaluate the New York City Fire Department’s handling of federal funds. That report, dated Jan. 26, 2009, says fire officials could not locate a pricey 46-inch, high-definition television. Three other such items were still in their original boxes and not being used. The department responded that the televisions were scheduled to be installed as part of a larger project, “and FDNY is on track to have the equipment operational by March 31, 2009,” two years after the TVs were received. From the state’s criminal justice services division we were given another single document. It’s an audit of $978,000 in grants awarded to the city of Buffalo through the Urban Area Security Initiative. The report questioned nearly $934,000 in personnel charges that covered routine patrols during an “orange” heightened alert period. Regular salaries for a police chief, captain and local fire department employees were also charged to the grant. “These costs would have been incurred by the city regardless of the terror alert level,” the report found. “The audit concludes that reimbursement of these expenditures constitutes supplanting of local funding.” An attached 2006 letter says the findings were resolved by transferring the questioned expenditures to a “state-funded account.” We sought from the New York Office of Homeland Security detailed records showing how the entire state had spent its federal anti-terrorism grants since 2001 hoping there would be a computer file containing individual transactions. But only hard-copy invoices were available and they had not yet been digitized. Xeroxing them would involve thousands of pages and require up to two months for completion, officials told us. There were additional difficulties. New York’s Office of the State Comptroller has produced numerous reports in recent years on preparedness cash spent inside and outside the Big Apple. But each of the documents contains some variation of this language: “Our audit identified certain areas in which controls over the use of homeland security funds needed to be improved. These findings and recommendations were provided to agency officials during the conduct of the audit. The details of our findings and recommendations are not included herein due to the sensitivity of the information.” Follow-up reports did say that improvements were made, and one pointed to a best practice for which the state had received praise. Authorities used a “risk-based distribution formula” to deploy more than 150 emergency-response trailers across the region containing personal protective gear, detection devices for possible weapons of mass destruction and decontamination equipment. “Through centralized purchasing, the state was able to equip municipal jurisdictions with resources they needed, and also provide for a level of standardization in these resources from one jurisdiction to the next,” auditors determined. Still, enough publicly accessible documents exist to further show that New York has not been immune to the grant oversight problems other states faced: • The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene bought 380 GPS systems for its fleet of vehicles. Subscription fees alone for all of them cost $126,000. But when auditors showed up three years after they were acquired, more than 100 of the devices were unused and being warehoused in Brooklyn and Queens. Department officials responded that they planned to install the items later after procuring new vehicles, but that plan became “severely delayed.” Due to pressure stemming from the audit, administrators negotiated for a refund from the GPS dealer of $93,000. Auditors also discovered, however, that a high-tech robotic arm for testing biological agents with a $188,000 price tag sat in storage for more than a year. So did a $183,000 machine for mass mailings “to provide the public with comprehensive information about bio-terrorism and response.” The department had to pay a storage company $4,800 until it could be put to use. Following up in June of 2009, auditors reported that their findings had eventually been resolved. • The New York Harbor’s Waterfront Commission used $619,000 in port security grants to purchase laptops and other equipment so its police force could remotely access photo ID, licensing and registration databases “to help combat terrorism.” But investigators disclosed in an August 2009 report years after the funds were awarded that the system was not operational or otherwise used for its intended purpose, in part due to a “lack of proper training.” The commission spent another $170,000 on a boat for patrolling the harbor telling the federal government it would help detect “a waterborne attack” and “deter an attack by a small craft with an IED.” Officials instead deployed it only “sparingly and irregularly” using it to escort guests and VIPs during a fleet-week event, a probe found. • Clear explanations weren’t available for $161,000 worth of “landlord administrative fees” and an advanced system for maintaining public-health records that cost $3 million, according to a March 2008 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general. School administrators in New York City had claimed in grant applications that automating health records would enable them to identify bioterrorism threats as soon as possible. But employees who used the system told the inspector general that it had no such readiness application. Management officials, however, insisted in response to the report that it did contain a bioterror component, but “possibly the appropriate school personnel were not interviewed” by the inspector general.
G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.More by G.W. Schulz